It’s imperative for Ukraine to weigh every factor as it struggles to protect its citizens and sovereignty from Russia’s invasion. That includes the “moral high ground” that defines what should be permissable on the battlefield.
But ethical imperatives are neither absolute, nor imperative in times of great danger, and the use of certain weapons, like cluster munitions, must be weighed against the threats posed by the enemy.
Russia has waged wanton genocide and commited numerous war crimes since its invasion of Ukraine in Feburary a year ago.
Its continued strikes against civilian targets serve no strategic military purpose other than to terrorize the civilian population.
In that regard, President Biden’s decision to dramatically increase the supply of cluster munitions to Ukraine is both necessary and justified by the exigencies of war.
Cluster mnitions fall into a gray area, not because of their use or destructive power, but because they pose a threat to civilians long after the fighting is over.
Each bomb, missile or artillery shell contains dozens of smaller “submunitions.” They can scatter over an area the size of several football fields and explode individually.
The problem arises,because many of the bomblets fail to detonate. They litter the battlefield and can cause horrific injuries usually resulting in death, serious injuries or amputations.
Despite the fact that 123 nations have signed a 2008 treaty, banning the use of cluster bombs, millions of ammunition rounds have been used since then in 21 conflicts across Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe and other parts of the world, according to the International Red Cross (IRC)
Nearly 20,000 civilians a year are being killed or injured in those areas, mostly men and boys, who are often attracted by the shape, size and color of cluster munitions, the IRC reports.
While the case for the ban is compelling, neither the United States, Ukraine nor Russia are signatories. In fact, Russia and the United States are the largest users of the weapon.
Russia has used cluster munitions in Ukraine since 2014. Ukraine has also used them in limited amounts.
But the United States will dramatically increase the supply from its large stockpile, in part, to cover a shortage in conventional artillery shells facing the Ukrainian army.
Without them, Its military would need to increase their use of massed artillery and rocket barrages to get the same coverage, which would destroy or damage more key infrastructure. according to a Congressional report.
With them, Ukraine will have a powerful new weapon in its latest offensive against entrenched enemy forces.
Because of high losses in men and equipment, Russia has clearly lost the ability to conduct widescale offensive operations. Instead, it’s hunkered down behind elaborate fortifications and trenches, flanked by tens of thousands of land mines.
It’s ready to sacrifice tens of thousands of poorly equipped and trained troops, a virtual suicide mission, to make it too costly for Ukraine’s much smaller army to move forward. But cluster munitions will allow Ukraine to break down those defenses and save the lives of its own soldiers.
During the Vietnam War, cluster bombs proved to be eight times more effective than conventional artillery ammuniton.
The standard U.S. submunition is called dual-purpose improved conventional munition, or DPICM. It’s considered dual-purpose because it has effects on both vehicles and troops.
The most recent version, the M77, has a penetrating charge for attacking vehicles and a fragmentation element for attacking personnel. A155 mm artillery shell carries 88 submunitions or 76 in the longer-range verson. They can also be launched from HIMARS rockets.
The submunitions are effective for clearing trenches or detonating minefields to clear the way for advancing troops. U.S. bombs have a failure rate estimated to be 2.35 percent. Russia’s bombs, incontrast, fail 40 percent of the time.
Ukraine has long pressed for cluster bombs. It stressed that it would only use them on its own territory and has a high degree of self-interest in clearing the unexploded bomblets.
“These are their citizens they’re protecting, and they are motivated to use any weapon system they have in a way that minimizes the risk to these citizens,” said Biden National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan when the decision was announced.
Ukraine’s desire for the weapon, despite the destructiveness to its own cirizens, and the U.S. reluctance, initially, to provide it goes to the heart of the debate over the war’s “moral” imperative.
As The New York Times Editorial Board recently argued, such “weapons would undermine one of the fundamental reasons to support Ukraine: to defend the norms that secure peace and stability in Europe, norms that Russia violated so blatantly.”
But defending “norms” is probably the last thing on the minds of Ukrainian soldiers, who are laying their lives on the line assaulting entrenched Russian positions.
The real moral imperative is to protect Ukrainian troops as much as possible by giving them a weapon that will help to reduce their casualties.
“The objections to DPICM provision to Ukraine are militarily dangerous, legally misleading and morally questionable, drawing a false equivalence between Russian and Ukrainian use cases,” according to the Royal United Services Institute.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t red lines in war. Chemical, biological, nuclear or any other weapons of mass destruction should never be used under any circumstances. Cluster munitions, a tactical weapon, clearly falls within those lines.